Keene’s second annual Radically Rural summit kicks off this fall, exploring the traits that define small town communities and economic patterns since the recession that have disadvantaged their residents and businesses.
Mary Ann Kristiansen, Hannah Grimes’ executive director, explains that the backdrop for Radically Rural was a growing trend toward urbanization in the face of a countertrend of ruralization.
The goal of the summit, she says, is to create a network, strengthen connections and share ideas between rural communities to improve all of them.
Kristiansen points to the recession, which created a schism in American zip codes. While metro areas have boomed since recovering from the economic downturn, she says many small towns and cities are in a worse position now than they were before 2008.
And she asserts that the last presidential election highlighted those disparities between urban and rural voters.
“So I think that diverging trend has caught the attention of economists and other people,” Kristiansen says.
THE ‘GREAT RESHUFFLING’
The Economic Innovation Group was among those organizations that took notice, a bipartisan public policy agency that combines research and advocacy to address the economic challenges across the country.
As part of its research, the group’s Distressed Communities Index looks at the after-effects of the recession by comparing two periods: 2007-2011 and 2012-2016. The DCI sorts U.S. zip codes, counties, cities and congressional districts into quintiles based on their performance on the index: prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at-risk and distressed.
Researchers found a pattern revealed by the DCI that the group dubbed the “great reshuffling.”
“In the years following the recession, top-tier places have thrived, seeing meteoric growth in jobs, businesses, and population,” the organization’s website states. “Meanwhile, the number of people living in America’s most distressed zip codes is shrinking as the nature of distress becomes more rural.”
While most small towns were insulated from the effects of the recession, Research Director Kenan Fikri says that also means they weren’t poised to benefit from the economic upswing that followed. Rural areas were most likely to remain in the same place while metro areas boomed.
He explained that the DCI showed 30% of rural areas fell quintiles in the two periods. While they were the most likely to move down the charts, they were also the least likely to stay in the same. Another 27% of areas were upward mobile, he notes.
Generally rural areas with demographics and “human capital profiles” that more closely resembled metro areas were the ones that moved up a quintile, Fikri says. For instance, high rates of college degrees in a population was “one of the biggest differentiating factors.”
In New Hampshire, the data is more uplifting than the national averages, he notes. Fifty-four percent of rural zip codes in the state climbed the DCI in the two periods, double the national rate.
He notes that economies are more distressed in the northern part of the state, which is sparsely populated and more spread out. Southern New Hampshire is more connected to Massachusetts and the labor market of Boston’s greater metro area, he says.
Fikri didn’t know why New Hampshire’s rural communities performed better than the national average, but he said in general small towns in New England and the Great Plains were strong across all measures.
The distinction, he adds, seems to be a state or a community’s connectivity to the rest of the country, and some steps can be taken to improve that. Investing in infrastructure and broadband, providing opportunities for teleworking and fostering a gig economy allow people to choose the rural lifestyle without sacrificing their careers, Fikri says.
“The human capital agenda and the connectivity agenda are vital” to thriving rural communities, he adds.
Entrepreneurship is another measure of economic vitality. The startup rate was declining modestly before the recession, but it dropped off dramatically afterward, and much faster in non-metro areas.
“They’re generating today about half as many new companies each year as they did in the 1980s, 1990s,” Fikri says. “... So that’s kind of a looming red flag.”
While he made clear there’s no one solution, no silver bullet, Fikri says he doesn’t believe the data should be discouraging. Instead, the information should be a motivator to collectively answer the question: “What does rural prosperity look like in the modern economy and how do we secure it?”
America, after all, is a nation of small towns, he says.
“We shouldn’t treat the demise of all of them as inevitable, and we should come up with more public policy tools to … help them come up with a future for themselves.”
RURAL COMMUNITIES NEED AN IDENTITY
Radically Rural’s closing speaker is familiar with the model of using research to help communities find solutions for their economic future.
Art Markman (see profile on page 28) became the executive director of the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin last December. He describes the organization as a “think-and-do tank” that creates research projects as well as actionable programs based on the results.
Since Markman took the helm, the Institute’s focus has become economic development, innovation and entrepreneurship in rural and small cities in America.
“I see the problem of rural economies as being something that’s of real central importance to America as a country,” he says.
The Institute aims to research and identify areas where more resources, effort or funding could be applied to help achieve the community’s goals in economic development, he explains. Researchers have worked with cities in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota and Idaho, as well as a handful spread across Texas — which Markman pointed out, are six to 10 hours apart, despite being in the same state.
Keene is the Institute’s first foray into New England, but Markman says there are many similarities across rural locales, including one bottom line that rings true in each city.
“Communities need to really develop a clear sense of what their identity is in a way that many urban areas don’t,” he says.
While some metropolises have a sense of identity — Austin is known for its music scene and eclectic atmosphere, for instance — others are large enough to attract people just for their size alone, like New York City, Markman says.
Small towns, however, need a sense of cohesiveness to draw people in and keep them there, Markman notes. He adds that the most successful communities understand their identity and use it to promote themselves. Understanding a town’s values helps drive policies.
“Some communities (want to) be a small, quiet, quaint community. Well if that’s what you (want to) be, that influences decisions you might make about zoning, decisions about what sorts of people you’re trying to attract to live in the town,” Markman says. “Without that understanding of the identity, you run the risk of trying to do things that will feel inauthentic to some substantial portion of the population.”
He clarified that identity is distinctly different than a brand, though a good grasp of a community’s values can help determine a message and marketing strategy.
Looking specifically at Keene, Markman notes that there might be a tendency to want to distinguish the city or the region from the rest of New Hampshire.
“But if you’re pitching to people from outside the state, you might (want to) start with why New Hampshire is kind of a cool place,” he says, “because, from the outside, they’re not making the kinds of fine differentiations that you do from the inside.”
It’s a balancing act, he explains, between creating a common cause with neighbors in the Granite State while still defining the city, town or region as unique within that.
Markman lauded Keene’s residents, business owners and elected officials for their willingness to step up and pitch in, something he says is critical to the success of small towns. Even the state’s congressional delegation met with Markman’s team; he notes such access to high-level public servants isn’t available in other states.
“You see this in Keene all over the place. People are just incredibly open to discussion, to the energies of people around. I’m incredibly impressed with how giving people have been of their time for us as we’ve come in,” he says. “... That’s a tremendous resource that will pay a lot of dividends as the town continues its development.”
Kristiansen says that, despite the challenges facing rural areas, she has witnessed an optimism and energy from residents that are encouraging.
“We tried to pull that together and synthesize it into something that can really help rural communities,” she says of the Radically Rural Summit in September.
It’s a critical time to share ideas to find a path forward, she adds.
“The challenges to this country if we don’t solve this problem … I think we’ve seen some of it, but when you’ve got huge inequality, you start to have not one country but two, or many many more.” T
Sierra Hubbard is a staff writer at The Keene Sentinel.